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'Holy Spider' Review: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi Digs For Justice In Harrowing True Crime Thriller

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi looking worried, wearing a hijab

First things first, let's just get this out of the way and admit that we all know that there's only way to say/sing this film's title out loud. Get a warm drink and do some lip rolls so you'll be hitting the high notes when talking about Holy Spider (same title in Denmark, عنكبوت مقدس in Persian). Directed by Ali Abbasi and written by Afshin Kamran Bahrami with Abbasi, the crime thriller is inspired by real serial murders in Mashhad, Iran in early 2000s. Doing a rare double duty, casting director Zar Amir-Ebrahimi also stars as Rahimi, a made-up composite journalist who arrives to town to investigate the case where victims are prostitutes and the killer named as ''Spider Killer'' is an extremely religious former military member Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), who justifies the murders as ''moral cleansing''.

What needs to be mentioned now when talking about Holy Spider, considering that the story has its roots in misogyny, control and how faith can be tied to those, is that it plays in totally different volume currently as protests are going on in Iran, opposing moral policies in support of women's rights. Screenplay by Abbasi and Bahrami not only shows that they've done their homework when it comes to films involving both crime and journalism as it ambitiously follows two different worlds before becoming even a legal drama, but it has frustration and straightforwardness that speaks to our current times. Even if those styles don't always connect because of the filmmaking, they manage to deliver an ending that both sends shivers down your spine and also reflects both Rahimi and Saeed's storylines in terms of their impact.

It'd be quite understandable if the film leaves a sour taste in viewers' mouths in addition to its subject matter because the writing is much stronger than Abbasi's direction. There's a lot of hesitation in the way that he ends up visualising the material whether that's repetitive (maybe unnecessary) nature of violence, poor transitions that doesn't give much room for Olivia Neergaard-Holm's editing or shaky staging of what is happening around Rahimi. Abbasi and DoP Nadim Carlsen's messy frames don't also seem to inspire Martin Dirkov's score all that much as it slowly fades away after being a suitably oppressive shade for the movie.

There are also less convincing supporting performances thrown in, though everything Abbasi does with Amir-Ebrahimi and Bajestani is exceptional. Bajestani's close-ups are provocative as he manages to transform from a drained father to terrifying predator just with his eyebrows and eyes alone, while Amir-Ebrahimi excels physically with her character; it's brilliant how she portrays situations where Rahimi clearly anticipates hostility, harassment or even danger, and yet, all that preparedness doesn't help when the system is rigged against women, especially those who choose to not conform anymore.

Smileys: Screenplay, ending, Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani

Frowneys: Directing

The not-so-amazing spider dude.


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